African leaders snuff out flames of discontent

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[Global: Africa]

HARARE, Zimbabwe – Mass demonstrations forced out rulers in Egypt and Tunisia after decades in office, but in Zimbabwe — whose leader has been in power for more than 30 years — even watching video footage of those uprisings can lead to treason charges punishable by death.

Longtime African rulers like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe are trying to prevent people's revolts like the ones that have roiled North Africa from igniting in their own countries.

So far, they have kept the revolts at bay with tear gas, intimidation, arrests, censorship and handouts. State-controlled TV stations in Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Zimbabwe are not allowed to show video footage from North Africa favorable to the protesters.

In Cameroon, where 77-year-old President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, the government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter. This came after people used the social networking site to report the mass deployment of troops to prevent a "Drive Out Biya" march.

Sub-Saharan Africa shares many of the root causes that have prompted the uprisings in the north: rising food prices, youth unemployment and repressive regimes that subvert democracy by rigging elections. Before the Tunisian uprising, 18 African rulers or their families had held power for more than 20 years.

Analysts point to the cohesion of people in Egypt and Tunisia, and contrast it to sub-Saharan Africa's tribally based politics that leaders use to win allegiance, divide and rule. It's a tribalism that helps sustain Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwe's Mugabe.

Still, Na'eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Center, said the revolts in Arab nations have sparked Africans' belief and hope in the power of mass action.

People in Swaziland, a tiny mountain kingdom in South Africa's northeast, staged a mass protest Friday over freezing civil service wages while King Mswati III, who has 14 wives, awarded himself a 24 percent increase in his budget allocation.

"There is no doubt that the Swazi people ... have been inspired by the democracy campaigns in Egypt and elsewhere, and have understood the importance of mass democratic action to change things for the better," said the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Jeenah, whose center is in Johannesburg, said even if the revolts in North Africa have not yet caught fire south of the Sahara, governments are concerned.

Those concerns have often translated into crackdowns aimed at snuffing out opposition protests before they flicker into life. Angola's ruler of more than 30 years, President Eduardo dos Santos, has used mass troop deployments and arrests to quash a planned pro-democracy protest. Opposition politicians and human rights lawyers in Angola, a virtual one-party state, have been receiving anonymous death threats and the cars of two lawyers were set ablaze.

In Djibouti, riot police moved against an estimated 6,000 people at an opposition political rally on Feb. 18, and opposition politicians said five people were killed and dozens wounded. A second rally planned for March 4 didn't happen after security forces filled the streets. Opposition leaders have been jailed.

"There is no way anybody can win against him," opposition leader Abdourahman Boreh said from exile in London, referring to President Ismail Omar Guelleh. "He uses all the power, all the police, all the government instruments and resources, and he uses brutality."

Uganda's Conservative Party leader John Ken Lukyamuzi said "it is very possible" the protests will spread to sub-Saharan Africa. In his own country, police fired tear gas against people protesting alleged rigging in last month's presidential vote that saw incumbent Yoweri Museveni, 66, who has been in power since 1986, win again. He threatened his opponents.

"I will deal with them decisively and they will never rise again," Museveni said, promising at one point to "bang them into jails and that would be the end of the story."

Some have used the carrot to quell unrest.

Ethiopia's 22-year government announced a cap on basic food prices within days of President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali's flight from Tunisia. Opponents said Saturday the government has rounded up some 200 opposition members in the past week "in a preemptive action to prevent the popular uprising that is sweeping through northern Africa."

In Zimbabwe, Jeenah said, people are held back from taking to the streets by fears of the beatings and torture meted out to dissenters, while Mugabe is sustained by the lack of criticism and even support demonstrated by other African leaders.

Ivory Coast threatens to slide back toward civil war since Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept that he lost November elections. As Gbagbo's intransigence turns the commercial capital, Abidjan, into a war zone, African leaders have been hesitant to intervene militarily. Some who side with Gbagbo are themselves anti-democratic.

If Gbagbo prevails, he would be the third African leader to refuse to accept election results, following the lead of Mugabe and Kenya's Mwai Kibaki.

It's a dangerous precedent. More than a dozen presidential elections are scheduled across Africa this year. If winners of free and fair elections are prevented from taking office, the people's discontent can only build.

(The Associated Press)

Faul reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya; Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda; Divine Ntaryike in Douala, Cameroon; and Phathizwe-Chief Zulu in Mbabane, Swaziland contributed to this report.

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